Thursday, September 21, 2006
The underwhelming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
I have discovered, through long and intensive soul-searching, that I would be a lousy pundit for a Sunday morning talk show. The reason is that my reaction to 99% of the topics discussed on such shows boils down to, "This too shall pass."
In other words, claims that individual leaders or individual political performances make a difference leave me, for the most part, unimpressed.
Which brings me to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Multiple sources have Ahmadinejad performing brilliantly while in NYC. Consider the New York Times' David Sanger:
Over the objections of the administration and Jewish groups that boycotted the event, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the man who has become the defiant face of Iran, squared off with the nation’s foreign policy establishment, parrying questions for an hour and three-quarters with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations, then ending the evening by asking whether they were simply shills for the Bush administration.See also Sanger's audio report.
Then there's Andrew Sullivan:
Watching the CNN interview with Mahmoud Ahamedinejad and reading about his meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations reinforces my sense of foreboding about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There's no point in denying that his trip to the U.S. has been a big media and p.r. coup for him. And there is a chilling slickness to him that is as disturbing as it is obviously formidable. The way he deflected questions always back toward the U.S., the way he skilfully used every awkward moment to pivot to the themes his domestic and international audience want to hear, the very image of the informal, mild-mannered, quiet-spoken, constantly smiling serenity: all these represent a very, very capable politician. There is a complete self-assurance to him that suggests he can neither be trusted as a diplomatic partner nor under-estimated as a global foe.Even cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sparred with a high-levelgroup from the Council on Foreign Relations for ninety minutes Wednesday on virtually every contentious issue between the United States and Iran.Color me mostly unimpressed. Ahmadinejad gets points for staying on message and not losing his temper. However, I judge whether someone has put in a good political performance based on whether they manage to persuade others of the merits of their worldview.
Looking at Gwertzman's account, I did not see that. Instead, I see Ahmadinejad getting pilloried by Matin Indyk, Brent Scowcroft, and Kenneth Roth -- not exactly a homogenous bunch. Which might explain Ahmadinejad's truculence at the end:
As the meeting drew to a close, the Iranian leader observed, “In the beginning of the session you said you are independent, and I accepted that. But everything you said seems to come from the government perspective.” Haass responded that there had been no advance coordination among the Council participants and that “the aim was to expose you to views of a broad range of Americans. It would be wrong for you to leave this meeting thinking that you heard unrepresentative views.”Like Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad might be able to stoke his own supporters, but he seems to excel even more at creating and unifying his adversaries.
Ahmadinejad too will pass.
UPDATE: OK, I'll give Ahmadinejad credit for sartorially converting Matthew Yglesias.
ANOTHER UPDATE: A valid question running through the comments boils down to, "what if Ahmadinejad gets nuclear weapons?" I agree that this does not fall under the "this too shall pass" category -- however, we need to be clear about terms here. My (limited) understanding of the Iranian power structure suggests that on the nuclear question, Ahmadinejad is a) not the most important decision-maker; and b) holds the minority position of rejecting all compromise. So even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, I do not think this means Ahmadinejad is going to have his finger on the button.
Besides, I suspect Ahmadinejad has his own domestic troubles.
The comparative political economy of The Office
Liesl Schillinger has an interesting essay in Slate comparing and contrasting four different versions of The Office. In addition to the U.K. and U.S. versions, both French (Le Bureau) and German television (Stromberg) have produced variants on the show.
[T]he base-line mood of David Brent's workplace—resignation mingled with self-loathing—is unrecognizably alien to our (well, my) sensibility. In the American office, passivity mingles with rueful hopefulness: An American always believes there's something to look forward to. A Brit does not, and finds humor in that hopelessness. What truths, I wondered, might Le Bureau and Stromberg reveal about the French and German professional milieus?...
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
So Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and George W. Bush walk into a UN General Assembly.... wait, that's not a joke, it actually happened.
Hugo gave a funny speech at the UN today -- that Noam Chomsky opening was a killer!
Here's the one part of the speech that actually made sense:
I don't think anybody in this room could defend the system. Let's accept -- let's be honest. The U.N. system, born after the Second World War, collapsed. It's worthless.Readers are heartily encouraged to postulate what would happen if the UN General Assembly was actually given any real power.
It’s rare to hear Congressional Democrats coming to the rescue of President George W. Bush. But a day after Venezuela's president called Mr. Bush a "devil" in front of the United Nations General Assembly, several prominent Bush critics are siding with the White House.If this keeps up, I propose that Chavez be given a chance to vent at the UN every week!
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
The worst form of government in Thailand and Hungary
It's strictly a coincidence that third-wave democratic governments in Hungary and Thailand are having a spot of trouble today. There does seem to be a loose commonality in the underlying sources of the instability, however.
Why the attempted coup in Thailand? The BBC has a good backgrounder:
Thailand's latest political crisis traces its roots back to January when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sold his family's stake in the telecoms firm Shin Corp.
As for the situation now, the BBC also reports that: An army-owned TV station is showing images of the royal family and songs linked in the past with military coups." To which I must say -- there are songs associated with military coups???
As for Hungary, here's the Associated Press explanation:
Protesters clashed with police and stormed the headquarters of Hungarian state television early Tuesday in an explosion of anger over a leaked recording of the prime minister admitting his government had "lied morning, evening and night" about the economy.In both countries, the formal electoral rules and laws seem incapable of dealing with shady behavior by duly elected officials.
A mark against democracy? Well, yes, but only until one considers Winston Churchill's thoughts on the matter.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Incompetence or impossibility in Iraq?
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is coming out with a book on the CPA's experiences in Iraq called Imperial Life in the Emerald City. For a taste, check out Chandrasekaran's excerpt in Sunday's Washington Post, as well as his Q&A at washingtonpost.com today. He opens the latter by stating the following:
I believe that the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the U.S. occupation government in Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004 -- had a rare opportunity to resuscitate Iraq. It's hard to remember now, but back then the Iraqis were turly happy to be liberated from Saddam's government. They were eager for American help to reconstruct their country and they wanted U.S. forces to help establish order. But the CPA, in my view, squandered that goodwill by failing to bring the necessary resources to bear to rebuild Iraq and by not listening to what the Iraqis wanted -- or needed -- in terms of a postwar government. By sending, as I've written, the loyal and the willing over the best and the brightest, we hobbled our efforts there.This is a theme I've touched on in the past (full disclosure: Chandrasekaran contacted me during the drafting of his book to get in touch with my sources at CPA, and I briefly acted as a go-between).
It also dredges up what will be an age-old debate -- was the failure in Iraq preordained because the mission was hopeless, or was it becaused the administration bungled the execution? Last year, Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld argued that failure was preordained.
The argument that the Iraq war had no chance to succeed has an undeniable surface appeal. Things are going so badly there that it's hard to imagine how it could have turned out differently.Yglesias responds here and here. One excerpt:
Let me just note that this is an extremely weak claim being made on behalf of the underlying policy concept. It "wasn't necessarily doomed" though it was bound to be "extremely difficult."If you read what I've written on this subject, I obviously take the incompetence position -- Iraq could have gone much, much better.
To answer Matt's question, however, it seems to be that had the Bush administration:
a) Not been committed to proving Rumsfeld's thesis about warfighting, and thus had significantly more troops on the ground in the spring o 2003;Then I'd say the odds of Iraq being at least as stable and open as, say, Ukraine would have been better than 50/50.
That said, I close with what I wrote two years ago:
[W]e can't rewind history and replay Iraq with better implementation. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that the flaw lay with the idea or the implementation. I clearly think it's the implementation, but I will gladly concede that there are decent arguments out there that the idea itself was wrong as well.Tell me, dear readers -- was it the idea or the implementation?
Confusing headline of the day
"Al-Qaeda threatens jihad over Pope's remarks," Times of London, September 18, 2006Someone get Al Qaeda a dictionary and show them the word "redundant."
Damn that cheap European labor force!!
The Financial Times' Francesco Guerrera and Alan Beattie report on a new trend in offshoring:
Multinational companies are favouring Europe over Asia when expanding abroad – a sign that they want to be close to customers and suppliers rather than simply tap into cheap labour and plants, according to a new study of outward investment.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Will there be a TAFTA?
This week the Economist has an excellent survey by Pam Woodall of the global economy, and the increasingly powerful effects that the developing world are exerting on prices, wages, and interest rates:
Last year the combined output of emerging economies reached an important milestone: it accounted for more than half of total world GDP (measured at purchasing-power parity). This means that the rich countries no longer dominate the global economy. The developing countries also have a far greater influence on the performance of the rich economies than is generally realised. Emerging economies are driving global growth and having a big impact on developed countries' inflation, interest rates, wages and profits. As these newcomers become more integrated into the global economy and their incomes catch up with the rich countries, they will provide the biggest boost to the world economy since the industrial revolution....Be sure to check out the podcast interview with Woodall, conducted by the dulcet tones of one Megan McArdle. Woodall thinks what's happening now will be "bigger than the industrial revolution."
One obvious implication to draw from the survey is that the relative (though not absolute) economic power of the US and EU will decline over time.
How will Washington and Brussels respond? The Financial Times' Bertrand Benoit offers one intriguing answer:
Spurred by concern about China’s growing economic might, Germany is considering a plan for a free-trade zone between Europe and the US.When I was in Berlin this summer I met with a few Bundestag and industry officials who were quite keen on the idea. The fact that Merkel is considering this suggests that the idea has gotten more traction in recent months.
There are many reasons to believe that TAFTA will never get off the ground. What Europe thinks should go into a free trade agreement is a bit more modest than what the U.S. thinks should go into one. I simply can't see agriculture included into any TAFTA. I can't imagine that France would ever let it go forward. Anti-Americanism on the continent could be enough to scotch it.
And yet, the idea is very intriguing. Even if it takes ten years to negotiate, the combined weight of a TAFTA in terms of both market size and rule-setting behavior would be formidable.